In Retreat

Friday, early evening. I’m warm and sleepy, face burnt by wind and sun, limbs thick and loose with fatigue.

 

I hiked the Beara Way from Eyeries to Allihies today. Not so far really-11 kms, just over 6 miles. But the way was challenging: across the Slieve Miskish range, skirting the boggy and desolate peaks of Miskish and Knockgour,  whistling through lonely valleys. Not a soul, even now, in the height of trekking season in Ireland. Just the wind, the sheep, kestrals, and my thoughts to keep me company.

 

Early in my novel, The Crows of Beara, three characters go on a hike along the Beara Way: Daniel, an Irish guide, Annie, an American, and one of Annie’s Irish colleagues. Daniel drives them from Castletownbere until they reach a service road. He parks at a crossroads, then the three clamber over a turnstile into a farmer’s field and begin their ascent up a boggy mountain. It’s overcast, windy, and the bays below are hidden by a layer of fog.

 

I wrote the scene not from any specific memory of my time hiking the Beara in 2002, but from a composite of images I’d captured and held onto.

 

Today, I came to a sign pointing me back the way I’d come—Eyeries to the north, or east to Castletownbere, or south, to my intended destination of Allihies.  

Crossroads, Beara Way

 

I crossed a service road, clambered over a turnstile, and tromped through a field, scattering sheep in my wake. I began to ascend a boggy trail as thick mist raced down the mountain, obscuring my view of the sea.

image

 

When my character Annie reaches the peak on the trail, she pauses to catch her breath. The wind shoves the fog and mist aside and the bays, fields,  and villages below reveal themselves. Something constricts and then expands inside of her, as if her very soul had stilled in wonder, before filling its lungs with hope and longing and inexplicable joy.

 

As I paused on Knockgour to catch my breath, the wind pushed past me, carrying the mist up and over the mountain and out to sea. 

 

And my very soul stilled in wonder, before filling with delight. I realized I had written this moment. I had found the very place where Annie begins her transformation from one self into the next.

 

I’m on retreat here at Anam Cara. I’m a bit in retreat as well. I arrived a week ago (already, oh!). Only one other writer in residence this week; tomorrow the poetry group arrives. By the time you read this, I’ll have left behind a routine to which I’ve so easily, quietly adapted: an early morning run along country roads, breakfast in a steamy kitchen, writing until noon, followed by a couple of hours proofing the ARC of In Another Life, lunch, a long hike, home again to write before dinner, then a few more hours of writing and reading before the sun finally sets, well after 10 p.m. I leave my curtains open and from bed, I watch the clouds change colors and shapes over Coulagh Bay, until suddenly it’s morning again. Exquisite solitude.

 

I’ve written a couple drafts of an essay that’s been agitating for months to be released on paper. I finished proofing my novel. I worked on a class I’m offering at the end of July. There’s been an awful lot of gazing out the window from the desk in my room and meditating during my hikes, churning around ideas for the next novel. Tomorrow I’ll start researching some of these ideas. Go for another hike. Be deliciously alone.

 

But a new week begins Sunday, as the poetry workshop convenes, and I must open my heart to learning, studying, and sharing. Poetry. I’m terrified. I can’t wait. We’ll be doing some exploring, as well, including other sites in The Crows of Beara I’ve yet to (re)visit.

 

It’s Saturday now. I hear the others arriving. If I sneak out the back, with my pack, camera, notebook and water bottle, I can remain in retreat a little while longer . . .

 

 

Full Circle

“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

1640_1028955160263_9598_nThis photo was taken in May 2002. My first trip to Ireland. Alone, I joined a small group of strangers to hike the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. On the flight home two weeks later, I turned my face toward the window and sobbed. I felt torn from a lover whom I was never meant to see again. Ireland had changed me. I had felt on the Beara a sense of peace and wholeness I had never experienced before.

 

I’ve returned to Ireland several times since then, each time to hike. My husband and I have traveled together, he under her spell as much as I. But that first time—and the Beara—remains a dream crystallized in photographs and memories.

 

A year ago January, I began thinking about my second novel, knowing only that it would be set in Ireland. Then I let go of wondering about the where and the why and concentrated on the who. As my characters began to take shape, I knew the threads connecting them to the setting would be found in a legend or a poem that expressed Ireland’s power over the imagination and the soul. When I discovered An Cailleach Bheara, the legend of the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland, I knew I would return to the Beara Peninsula, if not in reality, then in the pages of my story.

 

Researching the legend of the Hag of Beara led me the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, a native of West Cork who published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one. I wrote about her beautiful collection An Cailleach Bheara in this post: An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and her sunrise

 

The Beara Peninsula was once a site of the copper mining industry, before those reserves were exhausted in the late 19th century. The skeletons and scars of those mines are visible today. In my novel, I brought the possibility of copper mining back to modern Beara, a place in need of an economic lifeline after recession felled the Celtic Tiger in the late 2000s. And Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry answered me yet again, in her collection The Mining Road.

 

The wild, scabrous beauty of the Beara belies its fragility. In a cove, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a population of Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax chatters and clings, nesting in the shadow of industry and development. These birds, the Red-billed chough-a member of the crow family—became a sort of character in their own right and their plight, one of my novel’s central themes. The Crows of Beara was a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction and is now on submission, looking for its publishing home.

 

And I am packing for Ireland. The Beara Peninsula, specifically. In a month, I will be spending two weeks at the Anam Cara Retreat Center, one week in residency working on my own, one week in a workshop led by Leanne O’Sullivan: Lining Our Thoughts, A Poetry Writing Workshop. I’m terrified. I’ve never written a lick of poetry in my life. But I knew the minute I learned of this workshop—a chance search on the internet—I had to be there. The Universe is granting me the opportunity to come full circle. I’ll visit An Cailleach Bheara for the first time. I will thank Leanne O’Sullivan in person for the gift of her words. Perhaps find a few more of my own.

 

My heart is quite calm now. I am going back.

“The Beara Peninsula stretched away from the southwest coast of Ireland into the North Atlantic like the long foot of a lizard. At the tip of the foot was a gnarled knuckle of land: the Slieve Miskish mountains. The knuckle slid south to end in three claws—the westernmost tips of the country. Ballycaróg wasn’t at the very end of the earth—that distinction belonged to the edge of Dursey Island, ten miles south—but it was tucked into a cove that looked toward nothing but ocean, all the way to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.”

 

from The Crows of Beara, by Julie Christine Johnson

Layer Cake

Cake baking has never been my thing. Too fussy. The ingredients make it look deceptively easy—butter, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, milk, eggs and Bob’s your uncle. But the ingredients must be at a just-so temperature. The flour must be aerated, light. And if we’re talking layers and frosting, know that my inner klutz is cringing. Candy thermometers. Cake plates. Offset spatulas. Crumb coating. Pastry bags. Cakes that bubble on top or sink in the middle. Cakes that cling to the bottom of the pan, peeling away like a thick layer of epidermis. Frosting that is too thick, tearing at the fragile skin, or too thin, running down the sides like desultory rain, pooling on the plate, soaking your cake’s feet.

 

But when it comes to writing, I’m Martha Stewart. I’m a Six-Layer Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd filling.

 

I’m revising my second novel, The Crows of Beara, following my agent’s suggestions, questions, and cautions as a guide. I’m in a bit of a rush, emotionally. Agent wants to get this out “on sub” by mid-spring, before the summer doldrums sweep everyone out of their offices. On sub is writer jargon for ‘agent sending manuscript to editors, looking for novel’s publishing home.’

 

Practically speaking, the story is hitting its stride. When I finished the first draft a year ago, it had 105,000 words. After three revisions last fall, I submitted a 99,000 word second draft as my entry for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction. The Crows of Beara was one of two finalists for the prize, which gave me confidence that publication was worth pursuing.

 

Now into my second revision of a third draft, I’m working with 88,700* words. Over fifteen percent of a novel, gone. *Um. Since first publishing this post on Monday, I’ve lost a few more words. 87,500 now. 

 

My first drafts aren’t brain dumps, per se, but I do try to silence the inner editor. I do resist returning to earlier scenes or chapters, for fear of falling into a doubt trap, or miring myself in the revision process. I’m simpatico with Cheryl Strayed, who so succinctly gets it, “I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.” (From The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 24, 2015

 

Once I begin revising, it’s a meticulous excising of excess detail and repetitive language and meandering thoughts and conversations to get at the heart of the story.

 

I may delete. But I never throw anything away.

 

During the first round of writer-editor revisions of In Another Life, I encountered notes from my editor requesting more detail here, more exposition or background there, clarification of background. In some cases, she was asking for layers—character motivation, a shoring up of sub-plot; in other instances, she was looking for frosting—a rounding out or plumping up of detail, filling in the crevices of the story’s foundation. Fortunately, I had nearly all of what she wanted from earlier drafts. It was a matter of copying, pasting, refining to fit the story as it had evolved.

 

The notes off to the side of The Crows of Beara read a bit differently. My agent has been unsparing and insightful at pointing out where I’ve gone too far, given away too much, overdone it, rambled on. These revisions have been like restoring a piece of furniture, stripping away the layers of thick paint to reveal the clean bare bones beneath.

 

In careful revision, I see the layers of story for what they are. I’m able to shift sentences and phrases around, picking up something I discarded on page 113 and adding it to a paragraph on page 87. I see where the second scene in Chapter 12 really should be the first scene and a thoughtful transition shows something about a character not yet revealed or a clean end to a chapter leads the reader naturally to the next. All these minute layers building to a stronger whole.

 

I’m a bread baker. I have a predilection for yeast over sugar. The sheer physicality of bread making is a release and marvel to me. I’ve learned over the years that it all comes down to the knead. You can knock most mistakes out of a lump of yeast dough if you’re willing to put time and energy into kneading (bread machines and Kitchen Aid bread hooks need not apply. That’s not bread baking, that’s an assembly line). Forget what the recipe says; most underestimate the time it takes to knead dough into submission by at least half. Probably because they know you wouldn’t start the process if you knew the truth.

 

Kind of like writing a novel.

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Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did.

 

 

Can’t Stay Long: A Writer On Deadline

This will be short, raw, uncut: I’m on deadline. I’m also a little hung over from a wonderful dinner with friends, where there was paella, cheesecake, and bourbon. No one paid attention to the time until suddenly, it was tomorrow. Which is today. And I have so very much to do.

 

They’re heeeeere . . . the first round of REMEMBERING edits (I believe that’s the title we’ve arrived at. First Lesson in publishing—don’t get too attached to your title. And don’t balk at change. It will make it easier to move onto the Second Lesson: You’re not as good a writer as you think you are).

 

I knew to expect the manuscript at some point on Friday. I knew that once that manuscript arrived—Track Changes activated, the accompanying letter meant to brace me for all the notes my editor left within—it would be weeks before I returned to TUI, my novel-in-progress. It would mean saying goodbye to characters I was just getting to know, interrupting a train of thought, a progression of story I was finally settling into. I reached a stopping point, the end of a scene, a turning point in my protagonist’s life, 40,000 words into a complicated, emotional story that I hope to make even more complicated and emotional when I can return to it. One critical character is in the wings, waiting for my cue to make a first, defining appearance.

 

I saved TUI in all the right places, closed down Scrivener, left my editor’s e-mailed attachments unopened, and went for a long walk. I regretted what I had to leave behind, felt vulnerable and anxious about the work on REMEMBERING that lies ahead, and just ridiculously excited for this next part of the process—seeing my novel take its final shape and come roaring to life.

 

Returning to REMEMBERING means welcoming back characters who’ve become such an important part of my life. Characters who’ve changed my life. Do they know? Do they have any idea that in a year, their pasts, presents, futures; their mistakes, secrets, and hopes will be open for all the world to read? What have they been up to in the months since I laid them to rest on my hard drive? What will I be asked to change? How will I give them even greater depth, higher stakes, complicate their choices and alter their stories to make a more cohesive whole?

 

As I walked and breathed, buffeted by winter winds, I was reminded how this uncertainty and this feedback are so priceless. We write in isolation much of the time, hoping against all odds that we will be called forward, chosen, set on a path with a team of professionals devoted to making our work the best it can be. It’s a what-if I barely allowed myself to imagine. As I begin to consider the suggestions and changes, I accept that this thing is now bigger than me. REMEMBERING has left the shelter of my imagination and enters the real world of publishing, and I with it.

 

In between REMEMBERING and TUI sits my second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA. Last week, this happened:  The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature 2014

 

The writer hugs herself with glee. And gets to work.

From the ruins, a dream. Copyright 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

The Fast and The Furious: First Drafts

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.—Connie Willis

 

You guys. Guess what? I finished the first draft of my second novel last week. Wait, what? A second novel?

I know, right?

On January 13, I began sketching out characters. On April 2, I typed THE END at, well, the end of a 105,368 word manuscript.

How did that happen? How did this writer go from taking eighteen months to bash her way through a first manuscript—one that split its seams at 167,000 words before it came to a stop at 99,000—to a ten-week blitz of a pretty clean first draft?

Crikey! Can I do it again?

Well, let’s not worry about that now.

Let’s think about what went right.

I had no idea what this story would be about when I sat down in January with a blank notebook and a blue Pilot fine point. I knew the setting: southwest Ireland. That was it. Once I had the characters and their internal conflicts roughed out, the external conflicts and themes gradually took shape. I cobbled together a very general outline that provided guideposts along the way. It’s an outline I’ll redraft in far greater detail when I begin Draft Two.

Conversely, with Refuge of Doves, I had a story idea—an image in my mind of a woman standing before the ruins of a Cathar citadel in Languedoc, France—and a “what-if?” of history, around which I built the plot. But I had no idea where it would take me. I didn’t know my characters all that well. In a couple of cases, I still don’t. And it shows.

Blossoming  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Blossoming ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Really, I had no idea what I was doing the first time out. I just needed to start writing. I knew if I got bogged down in research or plotting, I’d never start the story. I had to develop the habit of writing every day and trust that the rest would sort itself out in time. And so I did. And so the story did, too. Over the course of months, a narrative began to take shape and I fell in love not just with the process, but with my people.

But I did not write sequential scenes. Primarily because I had a beginning and a vague idea of the end, but not much notion of what would happen in between. I just wrote a bunch of stuff.

So, a year after typing the opening words to Refuge, I had to lay out the scenes—and I mean literally: the living room floor was a giant grid of 8 1/2 ” x 11″ pages, with my prone body on top, sobbing—and try to put them in some sort of order. I spent the next five months cleaning it up and straightening it out, simply to get to The End. Of a first-ish draft.

What happened last week (let’s give it a name, shall we? Working Title: The Crows of Beara) was the product of a writer determined not to repeat the past. I set a weekly goal of 10,000 words and butt stayed in chair until that happened. I wrote scenes in order. I shut down the inner editor (repeatedly, daily, hourly, by the minute) and just wrote.

I’d planned to reserve one day a week for editing, but I abandoned that notion early on. Editing mired me down in minutiae and side-tracked me from simply letting the story pour forth. I jotted notes where I knew I needed more character development or technical research or where theme threads dropped or things got backstory heavy, but I left the writing alone.

I wrote fast. I wrote furious. It was a joyful experience. So much so that it’s all I want to do. I just want to write first drafts, you know? First Drafts Are Art, Baby. Unfettered by the rules of craft, playing loose with grammar, throwing ideas and not bothering to see what sticks and what drops to the floor like limp spaghetti.

Alas. The First Draft Fantasy. First drafts are like those early, googly-eyed days of a relationship. No matter how besotted you are by the First Draft, at some point there will be morning breath and the electric bill and someone’s red shirt in the washer with your white socks. At some point, there will be a revisions. Many. Revisions.

Refuge of Doves, which I finished in December, sits on my desk—set aside, but not forgotten. I’d been dreading the inevitable rewrite(s), but as I think about what went right this second time out of the gate, I know I can sort it.

One of the greatest unintended consequences of burning through the first draft of The Crows of Beara has been the building of eagerness to apply what I’ve learned about myself as a writer—and the shoring up of my weaknesses—on the massive project that awaits me.

And more than ever, I realize that the eighteen months I spent writing Refuge of Doves were eighteen months spent learning how to write a First Draft. Now I’m ready to turn it into a novel.

 

Worth Checking Out:

Why Your First Draft Isn’t Crap by Bryan Hutchinson for Positive Writer

Get Messy with Your First Draft by Elizabeth Sims for Writers Digest

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft by Jon Gingerich for Lit Reactor

The Elephant in the Room: Are you ignoring your story revision instincts? by Alythia Brown for Wordplay: The Writing Life of K.M. Weiland